Writing about Victorian postmortem photos

Until fairly recently, I believed, as many people do, that the Victorians constantly posed corpses as though they were alive, and used lots of fancy tricks to achieve this. In fact, thousands upon thousands of historical photos feature dead people whom you’d never guess on first glance are really dead! If someone in a Victorian photo has a creepy look, odds are, it’s a postmortem photo!

Except that’s a total myth, perpetuated by people who uncritically believe everything they hear or read.

Though it’s another total myth that the average person dropped dead at all of 35 until the modern era, there’s no denying that life on average was much harder and shorter. Even the upper classes weren’t immune to deadly diseases and the dangers of childbirth. Thus, our historical counterparts were much more used to death than we are, and didn’t fear it.

It was most common for people to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, instead of hidden away in hospitals. Death was seen as a natural, normal, inevitable event. Wakes were likewise held in houses instead of funeral parlors.

Victorians had very elaborate, detailed, structured rules about mourning, and many people wore mourning jewelry containing locks of the deceased’s hair, made from black materials like onyx and jet, and carved into symbols like skulls, coffins, oak sprays with an empty acorn cup, and lilies-of-the-valley. Ivory was also used, particularly for young people, as a symbol of innocence.

This is one of countless photos constantly trotted out as postmortem, but in reality, it was most likely a pre-mortem photo. That is, this young woman was very ill, and her parents wanted one final living photo with her. She may have passed away not long after the photo was taken. Pre-mortem photography was quite common.

Unless you know someone had a really dark, twisted sense of humor, it’s safe to say all photos of people in coffins are legit postmortem. People lying on beds, their eyes closed, also tend to be postmortem.

This is NOT a postmortem photo for one pretty obvious reason: Dead people can’t stand! Corpses aren’t Gumbies. You can’t mold and shape them any which way you want. Once rigor mortis sets in, that’s it. They’re locked in that position.

Dead weight means something. Even if you were able to prop up a corpse with metal rods and stands, they wouldn’t stay like that more than a few seconds unless you also tightly tied them in place. That may have been done for some forensic photos, but not for the vast majority of deceased Victorians.

Metal stands were absolutely used in many Victorian photos (some visible, some not), but not to prop up literal dead weight. The Victorians treated their dead with dignity, and had zero issue showing them as deceased. With death so common in that era, particularly among the non-elderly, there was no reason to go through elaborate staging to pretend they were really alive.

Those stands were used to help subjects with holding still during exposures which could last up to a minute in the early Victorian era. How many people are capable of holding completely still, in the same exact pose, for so long?

Though exposure time had shrunk to as little as three seconds by the late 1850s, even one second of inadvertent motion can create a blurry image. It happens in modern photos as well.

A blurry picture means the same thing it does today—someone moved at the wrong time. Thus, not dead! This woman is also only holding twins, not triplets. (Can three babies even fit on a normal-sized person’s lap?)

It’s the same story with serious expressions. You try holding a natural-looking, non-creepy smile for up to a minute and see how it goes. The Victorians loved having fun, but before instant exposure, smiling in a photo was impossible.

Many postmortem photos featuring babies and very young children show them on a mother’s lap, but this ain’t one of them. Living people, particularly very young ones, are known to close their eyes in photos, you know. The caption on the back also says nothing about death.

Additionally, a truly deceased child would be dressed more formally, and be lying flat, not sitting nearly upright.

Nothing to see here but Lewis Carroll alive and well. Just as in the modern era, Victorians also took many photos of themselves lounging across couches and reclining in chairs.

Maybe a photo looks creepy because of the limitations of older photographic technology; e.g., blue eyes appear white because of chemical processes, and exposure makes the rest of the body seem darker so as to highlight the face. Other culprits are poor lighting, overly stiff posture, shadows, or eyes that just creep some people out.

None of these alleged postmortem photos show things like drooping skin, rigor mortis, or darkened skin resembling bruising. They all look alive and well, only much more formally-posed than we’re used to.

The little girl on the far left is NOT dead! Hardly unheard-of for small children to zone out during photos and act bored with the entire proceedings.

Some people did paint pupils over closed eyelids, but for LIVING people, not the deceased. Hidden mother photography was also a real (and very creepy) thing, but more often than not done with living babies who needed to be kept still. Again, Victorians treated their dead with great respect and didn’t use them as creepy props.

The people who keep perpetuating this myth aren’t deliberately ignorant, but it becomes so much harder to debunk when people keep passing it along as truth.

Zabar’s

Copyright Fuzheado

Zabar’s is a specialty food store which opened in 1934 and moved to Broadway between 80th and 81st Streets in 1941. The building started life as the Calvin Apartments, four three-story structures erected in 1882, and stood out like a sore thumb among the elegant, freestanding mansions which characterized upper Broadway at the time.

In 1890, developer Christian Blinn sold it to real estate investor Julia Schwarz, and in 1892, he entered a loonybin. He filed suit against her in 1901, claiming he’d been insane and had no knowledge about the sale.

The jury couldn’t decide, so the judge ruled in favor of Ms. Schwarz.

Copyright Fuzheado

In 1919, Ms. Schwarz leased the building for $30,000 a year to the C&L Lunch Company, and commissioned architects Whinston & Whinston to remodel and combine the four buildings into one complex. A small apartment on the next lot north, built 1890, was also included.

The Tudor-style Calvin Apartments opened in 1920. In addition to being beautifully decorated both inside and out, they promised on-premise dining. They were very expensive, with two-room apartments going for $165 a month ($2,134.09 today).

In the 1920s, the average NYC rent was only $40 a month, and houses sold for $15 a square foot. Not exactly apartments intended for normal people!

Enter Louis and Lillian Zabar.

Louis Zabar was born in Ukraine in 1901 and came to the U.S. via Canada in the early 1920s, after his dad was murdered in a pogrom. Lillian Teit was probably born in 1902 or 1903, though she pretended to be younger when she immigrated from Ukraine in the mid-Twenties, fearful she’d be deported for being too old.

Lillian lived with relatives in Philadelphia, and Louis lived in Brooklyn, where he rented a stall in a farmers’ market. Later, Louis became head of a grocery’s smoked fish section. When Lillian moved to NYC, she and Louis renewed their old acquaintance from their hometown and married 2 May 1927.

They started a deli in Brooklyn, selling Lillian’s wonderful homemade foods, among them stuffed cabbage, blintzes, coleslaw, and potato salad. When the couple moved to Manhattan, they set up shop in the third building north from 80th St. in the old Calvin Apartments. By that time, the complex had become a hotel.

By the time of his death in 1950, Louis owned ten Manhattan markets.

Oldest son Saul (born 1929), a med student at the University of Kansas, came home to help the family business. He thought he’d only be there for a few years, but it turned into the rest of his life. Saul became the store’s president, and middle brother Stanley became vice-president after graduating the University of Pennsylvania.

Youngest brother Eli operates his own food businesses.

In 1953, entrepreneur Murray Klein (1923–2007) joined Zabar’s and began transforming it from a small deli to one of the city’s most renowned specialty markets. He started as a floor sweeper and stock clerk, and quit several times, but eventually became a full partner in 1960.

In the 1970s, there were plans to buy a building on the west side of Broadway between 82nd and 83rd Streets, but hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) enabled them to buy the entire former Calvin Apartments instead and expand that way. They also gained the rooms upstairs, which were once the Cedar Hotel.

Copyright Nate Steiner

Mr. Klein knew the store’s core clientele and most loyal customers were Ashkenazic Jews who went there for things like lox, pastrami, bagels, and babka, but he also knew good businesses need to draw more than one demographic.

To gain the patronage of a wider patronage seeking sophisticated food, he offered things like brie, caviar, white truffles, and gourmet chocolate. He also began selling household wares. Even more unusually, he sold at below-market prices and at a loss, even for luxury foods.

Copyright Rob Young

Zabar’s hasn’t yet featured in my books, but I look forward to including it.

More information:

http://www.zabars.com/on/demandware.store/Sites-Zabars-Site/default/Link-Page?cid=ZABARS_STORY

http://www.westsiderag.com/2012/08/27/upper-west-side-essential-eats-zabars

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/10/realestate/streetscapes-zabar-s-broadway-between-80th-81st-street-its-horizons-widened-it.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/23/nyregion/lillian-zabar-co-founder-of-quintessential-deli.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/07/nyregion/07klein.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/31/nyregion/31zabars.html

http://historicalny.com/Historical_NY/Zabars_and_The_Hadrian.html

http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2020/02/tudor-charm-on-upper-west-side-2241.html

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery is a culinary staple of the Lower East Side. Like many other proletarian businesspeople of the era, Romanian immigrant Rabbi Yonah Schimmel used a pushcart to hawk his wares (made by his wife) when he started in 1890. He originally worked on Coney Island.

Locals loved his offerings, so much so Rabbi Schimmel and his cousin Joseph Berger were soon able to rent a little store on Houston St. (It’s pronounced HOUSE-ton, not like the Texas city.) Rabbi Schimmel left to teach Hebrew two years later, but Mr. Berger kept the bakery’s name the same.

Copyright Nbarth

In 1910, the bakery moved to the south side of Houston, between First and Second Avenues. By this time, Mr. Berger’s wife Rose (also Rabbi Schimmel’s daughter; no comment!) co-ran the business. Back then, the bakery was on the ground level of a five-story tenement.

There were soon so many knisheries on the Lower East Side, a price war erupted in 1916. This was such a serious matter, state investigator William Groat held hearings regarding a knish cartel in 1928. One of the traditional knish fillings is kasha, buckwheat groats, so his surname was quite appropriate!

Copyright Urbankayaker

According to Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder’s 1968 “Underground Eats” column in New York Magazine, “No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face.” To this day, that declaration is taped above a counter.

Just to give a few examples, Theodore Roosevelt came for kasha knishes when he was the city’s police commissioner, and Eleanor Roosevelt made many campaign stops at Schimmel’s on her husband’s behalf.

In addition to offering delicious knishes, Schimmel’s has also been the subject of several artworks. Jewish–Irish artist Harry Kernoff painted it in 1939, and the Museum of the City of New York has a 1976 oil painting by Hedy Pagremanski on permanent display.

Over the last 110 years, the menu has largely remained the same, and the recipe is unchanged, though prices have naturally risen. Knishes aren’t the only thing on the menu either. Schimmel’s also offers matzah ball soup, kugel, latkes, bagels, borshcht, and egg creams.

Traditional knish fillings are kasha, onion and mashed potatoes, and cheese. Though they’re still the most popular, modern diners can also choose from jalapeño, blueberry, apple, chocolate, cabbage, broccoli, spinach, sweet potato, cherry, and mushroom.

Copyright Eric Hunt

Schimmel’s is still a family business, now run by Alex Wolfson and his daughter Ellen Anistratov. On his second day in America in 1979, Mr. Wolfson (Rabbi Schimmel’s great-nephew) began working as a busboy.

My characters Igor Konev and Violetta Likachëva go to Schimmel’s on some of their dates. It’s casual without being a hole in the wall, and conveniently located. Violetta lives in Greenwich Village, and Igor lives in the northern part of the Lower East Side (the area which later seceded and rebranded itself the so-called East Village).

More information:

http://www.timesofisrael.com/at-new-yorks-oldest-knishery-nosh-with-a-side-of-jewish-history/

http://www.knishery.com/

http://web.archive.org/web/20090910044131/http://www.mcny.org/museum-collections/painting-new-york/pttcat109.htm

http://www.villagevoice.com/2015/06/18/nosh-on-knishes-and-more-than-100-years-of-tradition-at-yonah-schimmel/

http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/13/knish/

St. Francis Xavier Church and Xavier High School

In the summer of 1847, English-born Jesuit priest John Larkin was dispatched to create a church and school in New York City. He initially worked in Fordham, the Bronx, but Archbishop John Hughes thought he had what it took to survive that “rough, extraordinary city.”

It took an entire day to travel to downtown Manhattan, and Father Larkin only had fifty cents ($15.77 today).

The next day, Mass was offered for the success of this mission. In attendance was a newly-immigrated French muralist who wanted to thank God for his family’s safe journey. After Mass, he told Father Larkin he’d heard U.S. banks weren’t reliable, and asked how to keep his money safe.

This was no small sum of money, but $5,000 ($157,730.49 today).

Copyright Kwok-Chi Ng

Divine Providence continued shining for Father Larkin. A Protestant church between Bowery and Elizabeth Streets had just gone on sale for $18,000 ($567,829.76 today) after a big schism, and asked $5,000 as a down payment.

Father Larkin promised the good Frenchman security for his money in return for a mortgage on that church, and the church was dedicated in October. Sadly, it burnt to the ground in January, and Father Larkin was asked to return to Fordham.

Despite this tragedy, the congregation rallied behind him to rebuild their church. A surprising source of spiritual fortitude also came from a seemingly chance encounter in The Bowery.

Copyright Scry Photo

Shortly after the fire, a woman selling apples approached him and said, “Well, Father Larkin, so your church is burnt; the Lord be praised!”

Not quite sure what he was hearing, he said, “‘The Lord be praised!’ Are you then glad of it?”

“Oh, God forbid! But then we must give God glory for everything.”

Father Larkin realized she was right, as painful as this situation was, and resolved to take this lesson to heart. The apple seller then lamented being unable to donate any money, since she was a poor widow with five kids, but insisted he take her two finest apples.

And from that moment on, the congregation endeavoured to give God glory for everything, good things as well as bad.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Father Larkin refused to abandon his congregation, and held Mass in borrowed spaces till 1851, when a new church, designed by William Rodrigue, opened on West 16th St., next to the old church. During this time, Father Larkin declined an offer to become Bishop of Toronto.

Tragedy struck again on 8 March 1877. During a women’s mission, a fire erupted in the packed sanctuary, and panic broke out. Six women and one child died, and the church was gutted.

This happened in part because the church had become too small to comfortably accommodate the entire congregation, since so many people from Catholic countries were immigrating in that era. A new building was needed anyway.

Copyright Steven Bornholtz

In May 1878, the cornerstone for a new church was laid immediately to the west, with 5,000 in attendance. Famous architect Patrick Charles Keely designed it in Roman Basilica style, with a bluish-grey Neo-Baroque façade and gabled portico. His frequent collaborators the Morgan Brothers designed the stained-glass windows in Pre-Raphaelite style.

William Lamprecht, the country’s leading ecclesiastical painter of the era, made almost 50 murals. The beautiful marble, in a rainbow of colors, came from Italy; the onyx came from Mexico; Massachusetts provided granite; and New Hampshire gave the cornices and columns.

This new building could hold 2,000. The total cost was $600,000 ($15,216,352.94 today).

Archbishop Michael Corrigan dedicated the completed church on 3 December 1882.

Copyright Americasroof at English Wikipedia

Every Catholic church has a school, and St. Francis Xavier Church has Xavier High School, also founded by Father Larkin. When he founded what was originally called the College of St. Francis Xavier, he only had five cents left ($1.58 today).

At the time, Father Larkin was also a professor at St. John’s College in Rosehill Manor, now Fordham University in the Bronx. His two schools played the first collegiate baseball game in 1859. Fordham won 33-11.

In 1861, after Father Larkin’s death, the high school was chartered by the state.

Copyright Ajay Suresh

The National Guard began military training at Xavier High School in 1886, and membership became mandatory in 1892. In 1897, collegiate and secondary studies were separated into different departments. The former closed in 1912.

In 1935, the student regiment became Junior ROTC, and the school was declared a military institute in 1968. Not till 1971 did participation in ROTC become optional.

I’ve not used either school nor church in my writing to date, but now I’m quite eager to make St. Francis Xavier the church of my Novak family when they move to New York in 1952.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/27/realestate/a-sidestreet-surprise-a-monumental-church.html

http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/StFrancisXavier.html

http://www.sfxavier.org/

http://www.xavierhs.org/s/81/rd16/start.aspx

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/larkin_john_8E.html

Walden School and West End Avenue

Walden School was a progressive, popular, innovative school on the historic Central Park West, founded March 1914 by Margaret Naumburg (1890–1983). While travelling Italy with her Barnard roommate Evelyn Dewey and her parents, progressive education pioneers John and Alice Dewey, she learnt under Maria Montessori.

She also studied education under John Dewey as a Columbia grad student. Though Columbia wasn’t properly co-ed till 1983, women were long accepted in the master’s and doctoral programs.

Fertile ground was thus planted for a new type of school, one not rigidly focused on formal textbook learning and a specific curriculum. Ms. Naumburg believed strongly students learn best by developing and following their own passions, and naturally absorbing information and knowledge.

The Children’s School, as it was originally called, had ten pupils and two teachers in a single room. Ms. Naumburg said, ”The purpose of this school is not merely the acquisition of knowledge by children. Its primary objective is the development of their capacities.”

In 1922, it was renamed Walden School, and eventually moved to 1 West 88th St. and Central Park West. Many people were off-put by such a radical-seeming school at first, but it went on to win much respect and renown.

Florence Naumburg Cane (1882–1952), Margaret’s sister and a Walden art teacher

There was no assigned seating, and teachers were called by first names. Even more radically, there were no grades, interviews took the place of entrance exams, and there was no formal preparation for college.

Students had great leeway in choosing their own course of study, and the visual and performing arts were emphasised. Walden frequently held art shows, musicals, panel discussions, and public demonstrations of science, arts, crafts, and wood shop.

Teachers got to know students as individuals, and tailored instruction to their strengths and needs. In keeping with its progressive principles, Walden was desegregated. Though it was a private school with tuition, this wasn’t a bastion of upper-class WASP privilege like certain other city schools.

Walden was particularly popular among intellectual, artistic families from the Upper West Side and Greenwich Village. Some students also came from other boroughs, and scholarships were available. By the 1970s, there were 500 students.

Walden merged with New Lincoln School in 1988, and sadly was forced to close in 1991 due to declining enrollment and financial difficulties.

Famous alumni include historian Barbara Tuchman, journalist Neil Barsky, design writer Steven Heller, dancer Jane Dudley, jazz singer Jeanne Lee, composer Robert Paterson, architect Edgar Tafel, artist Glenn Ligon, and murdered Freedom Rider Andrew Goodman.

Many of my characters from radical and intellectual families attend Walden. During the dark days of McCarthyism, it was safest for against the grain kids to be in alternative schools.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/02/realestate/cityscape-a-turn-of-the-century-vestige-threatened-on-the-west-end.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/23/nyregion/walden-school-at-73-files-for-bankruptcy.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1954/03/14/archives/education-in-review-influence-of-the-progressive-school-is-now.html

http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/06/obituaries/margaret-naumburg-walden-school-founder-dies.html

http://peoplepill.com/people/margaret-naumburg/

http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_sc/assignment1/1914naumburg.html

West End Avenue was created in the 1880s as 11th Avenue’s northern extension, meant as a commercial street for the incoming moneyed residents of nearby Riverside Drive. The Upper West Side wasn’t very populated at this time, and thus this new street was the far west end of the city. It might as well have been Oregon Country in the 1850s.

Throughout its history, West End Avenue has been almost exclusively residential. Its 48 blocks are full of elegant 19th century townhouses, beautiful prewar luxury apartments (now mostly co-ops) about 12-25 stories high, and houses of worship.

Most of the stables for the city’s remaining horses are on side streets. The stables date to the 19th century, but are fully updated with 21st century technology and conveniences. The horses live upstairs, and the carriages are downstairs.

Straus Park, © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons, named for locals Isidor and Ida Straus, who chose to die together on Titanic

Residents describe West End Avenue as a village with a strong sense of community. Many families have lived there for generations. People know their neighbors, and only leave their homes feet-first.

The 70s and 80s are the Gold Coast, with the most beautiful buildings and wide boulevards. Parts of the avenue became run-down for almost sixty years in the 20th century, but now it’s back to its grandeur, and people are more worried about overgentrification than high crime rates.

Copyright Jim.henderson

Shortly after immigrating in 1921, my characters Katrin and Anastasiya move into a huge penthouse on West End Avenue, in fictitious early co-op The Fourier, named for venerable Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier. When the Konevs move back to the city in 1952, they also move into The Fourier, along with several other families in need of upgraded housing.

More information:

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/23/realestate/if-you-re-thinking-living-west-end-avenue-quiet-convenient-diverse-involved.html

http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/straus-park/history